Advocates Say Ending New York’s Right to Shelter is ‘Misguided and Unethical’

NYC unsheltered homelessness, right to shelter

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has asked local courts to undo the state’s nearly four decades old “Right to Shelter” policy as the city grapples with an influx of migrants from other states. Advocates describe the move as dangerous and could lead to more people living outdoors.

Adams suspended parts of the city’s “right to shelter” on May 10 as the city assessed options for responding to the influx of migrants. The mayor said in a statement that he is now seeking further guidance from the courts on the issue. But Housing advocacy groups like the Coalition for the Homeless and the nonprofit Legal Aid Society described the suspension as “misguided and unethical” because it “effectively relegate[ed] [the migrants] to city streets.”

“The Mayor’s attempt to abdicate his moral and legal obligation to provide safe and decent shelter to those without homes is shameful and would result in countless more people bedding down on the streets and in the transit system – something no one in our city wants to see happen,” Dave Giffen, Executive Director of the Coalition for the Homeless, said in a statement.

New York’s so-called “Right to Shelter” has been on the books since 1981 when courts ruled in Callahan v. Carey that the state’s constitution requires that the government provide emergency shelter for its unhoused. Robert Hayes, CEO of New York’s nonprofit Community Healthcare Network, told Curbed in 2022 that the law has created an “ethos” for the city.

Since then, New York has spent billions of dollars to support the city’s shelter system, which is typically home to some 76,000 people, according to data from the city’s Department of Homeless Services. The policy has been especially impactful as the city faces a staggering increase in rates of homelessness.

State Governors Sending Immigrants to New York, Taxing System

But that system has come under increasing strain because of an influx of migrants sent to New York by governors in Florida and Texas. New York officials told the Associated Press that the city currently hosts more than 93,000 people, many of whom stay in hotels, tents, a former police academy facility, and a cruise ship terminal. These efforts have also come at a great cost, the officials added.

“We’ve spent over a billion dollars,” Adams said on an episode of CBS’ “Face The Nation” on May 21. “We’re projected to spend close to $4.3 billion if not more. This estimate was based on a number of migrants coming to the city, and those numbers have clearly increased.”

Adams has previously claimed that New York’s right to shelter is becoming increasingly impractical given the influx of migrants arriving in the city. Under the system, families with children that arrive at a shelter before 10:00 pm must be given a bed that same night. Single adults must be admitted within 24 hours.

“Given that we’re unable to provide care for an unlimited number of people and are already overextended, it is in the best interest of everyone, including those seeking to come to the United States, to be upfront that New York City cannot single-handedly provide care to everyone crossing our border,” Adams said in a statement on May 23.

Overhauling Right to Shelter Policy

Linda Gibbs, a former DHS commissioner in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, penned an op-ed in the New York Times where she argued that the city’s right to shelter must be overhauled because it is not dynamic enough to meet today’s demand.

“Any complex service organization is a constantly shifting environment of supports, incentives, and conditions,” Gibbs wrote. “Mediated through the eyes of the advocates and their attorneys, the city has been hamstrung in its efforts to adapt the shelter system to meet emerging needs.”

Advocates like Catherine Trapani, executive director of Homeless Services United, a local advocacy group, say there are other ways for New York to address its shelter issues without overturning its right to shelter. For instance, Trapani told the AP that New York officials could instead bolster the city’s rental assistance program with more staff and funding.

“The mayor does not need to take this drastic step to limit what should be a fundamental right,” Trapani said.

How You Can Help

Now is not the time to be silent about homelessness in New York or anywhere else. While blaming a single politician for today’s housing struggles is easy, the truth is much more profound.

Poverty and homelessness are both policy choices, not personal failures. That’s why we need you to contact your officials and tell them you support legislation that:

  • Streamlines the development of affordable housing
  • Reduces barriers for people experiencing homelessness to enter permanent housing
  • Bolsters government response to homelessness

Together, we can end homelessness.

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

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